by Christian Karembeu
A World Cup Final is a moment you wait for your whole life. When you play football, everyone dreams at one time or another of that time when you have the chance to go down in history. The two teams have made it clear for a long time that their goal was to win the World Cup, and here they were within touching distance of their dream. Having experienced it in 1998, I know what it feels like to be in the tunnel, ready to contest the most important game of your career.
Contrary to my experience with France ahead of the Final against Brazil, there was no clear favourite between Spain and the Netherlands. When we went on to the pitch at the Stade de France, we knew we were taking on a footballing monument: A Seleçao, four-time winners at the time and eternal favourites. That may have taken a little bit of pressure off us in that game. The fact that we had nothing to lose, reinforced by our desire to do well because we were playing in front of our own fans, helped us play the perfect game.
The lack of a clear favourite was undoubtedly what was missing in this Final and what prevented either of the teams really letting themselves go. Neither team had won the world title before and they did not want to miss out on this historic chance. There was not a big difference in terms of experience between them and that’s why there was no real favourite, even if the European title gave Spain a little more confidence. In fact, that last point is why Spain started the match the stronger team and more or less dominated the first half. For their part, the Netherlands suffered to begin with but reacted well after the break. Perhaps they needed time to adapt to the pressure of the event.
Obviously, in a match this tight the first goal is crucial. Still, before extra time starts, you can’t ask the players to just go for it. I often found myself in a similar situation during my career, notably in 1998 in the Round of 16 against Paraguay and against Italy in the quarter-finals, but no coach ever asked us to throw everything into getting forward. The most important thing is to first of all retain your defensive shape. When the stakes are so high, it becomes understandable that it’s more important not to lose than it is to takes risks to win. The Netherlands cracked after the sending-off of John Heitinga, who’s a pillar at the back for them. Spain took advantage of that – they were more solid and more effective in front of goal, and that’s the mark of a great team.